NI farmers call for fairness over biomass inspections

Northern Ireland farm leaders have called for fairness from the government when inspecting biomass boilers.

More than 1,000 sites in Northern Ireland have been subject to an investigation as part of a Department for the Economy (DfE) programme of inspections.

It follows a “cash for ash” scandal said to have cost the public purse £500m, triggering the collapse of the Northern Ireland government in 2017.

See also: Cash-for-ash scandal implicates poultry farmers

Farmers have seen Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payments suspended if they have faced additional checks because of issues arising during the initial audit.

Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) deputy president David Brown said: “While RHI boiler owners acknowledge the need for audit, they remain fiercely critical of the current inspection process.

‘Crippling details’

“They take issue with the sheer volume of records and details required, which is crippling.”

Mr Brown said inspections referred by the DfE to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) requested the same information from the boiler owner.

Questioning the need for duplication, Mr Brown suggested it would be quicker and easier for the details retrieved to be passed from the DfE to Ofgem.

He said: “Bearing in mind the majority of audits are being referred to Ofgem and while boiler owners are required to respond to Ofgem within seven days, it can take months for Ofgem to respond back.

“The often lengthy follow-up process after inspections leads to delays in RHI payments and according to the RHI regulations, periodic payments may be placed on hold for a variety of reasons.”

Mr Brown added: “All we are asking for is fairness. We want every boiler owner to have a fair, physical, on-site inspection to make sure fraud is not happening.”

The UFU says boiler owners were left with no choice but to return to fossil fuels because of the financial hit they have taken following drastic cuts to the RHI tariff.

Price gap

Since then, it says, a slump in fossil fuel prices has widened the gap between different types of fuel, driving more boiler owners to the fossil fuel alternative.

Tariff cuts make a mockery of any moves to reduce fossil fuel use and the wider debate of future energy policy in Northern Ireland, says the UFU.

Mr Brown said the DfE had effectively created a self-perpetuating downward spiral.

“DfE dramatically cut the tariff and is now making an unfair assumption that boiler owners had previously been generating heat for the purpose of making money.

“They’ve been asked to justify the change in heat use since 2017 when they have been forced to make changes on account of the tariff cuts imposed upon them.

“This is incredibly frustrating for RHI participants, just because they’ve reduced their heat output generated from a renewable source since then doesn’t mean they were using too much before. They simply can’t afford it anymore and have been forced to revert to fossil fuels.”